Why A Tech Background Is Super-Effective In A Sales RoleAugust 25, 2014
by Hester Lacey
Arnie Gullov-Singh is chief revenue officer at Polyvore, the world’s largest style community, which offers “a new way to discover and shop for things you love”. This young, innovative company was founded in 2007, has been profitable since 2011, has raised over $22m in funding and now boasts 20 million users. While Polyvore is all about sales for the brands and retailers it works with, the company itself is very much product-driven and engineering driven. Polyvore prides itself on its savvy business model, which reinvents the concept of e-commerce, working in small, responsive teams that experiment rapidly, learn fast and iterate quickly. This is an environment that suits Gullov-Singh, who was named one of the top 25 innovators in internet marketing by iMedia in 2009. “I wanted to work somewhere I could make an impact,” he says. He has built online marketing businesses since 1999, having served as CEO of Adly, as EVP of product and technology at Fox Audience ADNC -0.69% Network and as lead product manager for Yahoo YHOO -0.87%’s search marketing business.
So: how does a tech background make you super-effective in a sales role?
How Polyvore works
“Polyvore’s a place where women come to discover and shop for fashion. It’s pretty big, we have about 20 million users, and they’re mixing and matching products to produce outfits which we call sets. That’s unique to Polyvore. The other thing they’re doing is shopping – when you see all these outfits you want to shop. That’s what makes Polyvore so attractive to brands and retailers – we end up driving a lot of sales for brands and retailers in women’s fashion. We’re the biggest partners for some of these brands. My role at the company is chief revenue officer, which encompasses developing and taking to market the solutions for brands and retailers. There’s two parts to it: the first is educating brands and retailers on how Polyvore works, how to participate. The second part is how to spend money with us to amplify traffic from us.
“It’s very hard to get people to do anything online, let alone create an outfit, let alone create an outfit of the quality you see on Polyvore. The founders did an amazing job of making sure that happens. That gives us an incredible trove of data on which products go together, which dress goes with which pair of shoes, and we use that data to power recommendations for users. We’ve also invested a lot of money to make a ‘taste graph’ – it’s about how similar your tastes are to other people’s. If we know 20 people on Polyvore have similar tastes to you, we can help you find products that match your tastes. The taste graph sits under Polyvore – you don’t see it but it’s there.”
A product and tech background fits perfectly with a sales leadership role
“We’re seeing more and more people from product and tech backgrounds moving into sales leadership roles because the platforms that are popular today – Polyvore, Pinterest, Facebook – all have unique characteristics that make them popular. To monetise them, you have to understand what makes them unique and design a product that takes advantage of that; think, for example, of promoted Tweets on Twitter or promoted posts on Facebook. On Polyvore we have promoted items and promoted collections; all are native to the platforms they live on and because of that, they have to be really tightly integrated into the platform. To do that, you have to come from a product standpoint and say ‘How do I build a product that my users like – but that also makes sense for my advertisers?’ Being able to bridge those two requires a product background, so you’re seeing many people with similar backgrounds moving into those types of role.
“The other aspect is that advertising online becomes more and more data-driven every day. What marketers find interesting about social media in general is that there’s so much activity, it can provide so many insights, and they’re really thirsty for that information. We can show people which products are the most popular, how they’re being styled, how often they’re being saved. If you’re a fashion brand and you can see how your products are being styled, it might change the way you take your brand. The data inside these platforms could be overwhelming; being able to distil it into something actionable is important.”
Strategies that make a difference
“There’s two things I’ve learned from coming to Polyvore which we’ve actually turned into guiding principles. Revenue should always follow the user experience. We’ve eliminated banner ads and replaced them with native ads that blend into the user experience. And repeatable revenue builds a sustainable business. It sounds obvious – but in fact it’s really easy to develop one-off solutions and if you want to be successful you need to sell the same thing to the same marketer every month and sell the same thing to multiples. It’s an advantage to the buyer too: they get better at buying. Repeatable revenue to build a sustainable business is integral to everything we’ve done here. You can see that in our promotable products ad stream. If you’re shopping on Polyvore you will see products ranked in our shop area and they’re ranked through our product application. It’s a cost-per-click model and is very successful; it was launched last year and over 100 advertisers are already getting great results.
“I’m living in the data, seeing how many people are shopping on Polyvore round the world, how trends are changing. It’s a huge market opportunity and we’re really still only scratching the surface.”
How to be an internet innovator
“Innovation comes down to two things. One is willingness to take risks and the other is living in the data. I’ve always been very data-driven and I’ve used that when I take risks. I built the ad platform at MySpace in 2007 when no-one was monetarising social media – I saw an incredible trove of data being collected and I felt advertisers could use it to target people. Back then it was really hard to explain it to them, but now it’s a given.
“When I left Fox and moved to a start-up called Adly, I built what today would be called a native advertising platform; I thought there would be value in having ads in the timeline – ‘in the stream’, as we called it. At the time people thought we were crazy; a year later Facebook and Twitter were doing the same thing. Living in the data means you know what risks to take. I like to spend a lot of time thinking about the market, talking to people, figuring out the trends that maybe you don’t read about – finding out what’s really going on. Then you see an opportunity – and that’s when you can’t afford to be risk-averse.”
A business culture that works for everyone in the company
“What attracted me to Polyvore was that I saw a social network that was driving sales for retailers and brands and I thought that was unusual. Every other social network struggles to drive sales. The fact that Polyvore was doing it well was an incredible starting point to join and help take things to the next level.
“Polyvore is a terrific place to work. We have a fantastic culture, created by our CEO Jess Lee – she really cares about culture. You can think of our culture in terms of three values – they’re instilled in everybody and we have them written on the wall. Number one is ‘delight the user’. Number two is ‘do a few things well’. Number three is ‘make an impact’. Delighting the user is where the idea of revenue following user experience came from; it’s a guiding principle. Doing a few things well forces you to make bets. If you’re doing a few things well, you’re not doing a lot of things in a half-arsed way. The idea of building repeatable, sustainable business comes from doing a few things well. And the idea of making an impact appealed because I wanted to work somewhere I could make an impact! Polyvore was growing and I wanted to make an impact by scaling the business, which I have done over a year and a half.
“We also have an incredible culture of transparency. We share internally what’s going on with the company. There are no secrets: everyone knows what revenue we have, how many users we have, and it makes us more productive: we all walk into a meeting with the same data because it’s readily available, so the meeting can be half as long.”
A model that’s hard to resist …
“I am married and we got into home décor this year; we’ve got two kids and a house we’ve remodelled from top to bottom, and we actually have way too much stuff through Polyvore! The curation and the way we present products lends itself to buying. I can browse, find things that match my taste. All the team shops on Polyvore, in fact – I see boxes arriving every day!”